Come Home

by JIN

Main Characters: Vin and Chris

Disclaimers: I am not gaining anything but enjoyment from this story (it was really fun to write!)

Comments: This is for LaraMee, because she helped me believe in myself. I recently left a position I’d held for nine years – and I am incredibly homesick – I think that is where this fic came from. It alternates between first person (Chris and Vin) POV, told in the present, and a narrative, which starts at the beginning of the story and moves forward. Hopefully the story makes more sense than my explanation.

"Come home, Vin," I say softly.

I start to reach for him, moving my hand slowly and deliberately as I watch him eye me warily. He says nothing. His movement is so negligible as to be barely perceptible – but I see it and I know. I pull my hand back and shift lower to the floor. My knees won’t hold me long in this position, but I’m hoping it won’t be that long. It’s been far too long already.

Eye to eye with him now, I can see the pain there all too clearly. I hold his gaze, but try to look him over from the corner of my eye, thinking I’m being discreet in my assessment. But he sees and he knows. He hunches a little closer to the wall, and pulls his arm tighter across his chest. It won’t come for free – I will have to work to find out how bad it is. Even then, I may never really know.

I can give him that. A man has a right to nurse his own hurts; to keep his pain and his anguish to himself. I’m Vin’s friend, not his keeper, and I won’t push him to accept help. I could – and probably would – let Tanner hide himself away and tend his injuries like a wounded wolf; let him come to terms with it all in his own time. But there are others to consider.

"Please, Vin," I try again. "Just . . . come on home."

His eyes widen and I see something there that I can’t name, and it bothers me because I know him . . . I know how he thinks, how he reacts, he how feels life deep down inside. But I’m unsure now . . . unsure where he is and what he needs from me.

He’s not moving. He’s not speaking. His lips are cracked and dry, and I’m wondering when he last ate or drank. His eyes are dark and hollow, and I’m wondering when he last slept. He’s got one leg stretched out awkwardly in front of him, the other pulled up against his chest, and I’m wondering how many bruised, cracked, or broken bones he is hiding.

Forget what I said earlier, I can and I will push him to accept help.

My knees crack as I get to my feet and walk over to the table where the canteen sits. He watches every step, not with distrust or fear, but more like . . . resignation. He knew I would come. He knew eventually I would find him.

Never thought I’d find him here, though. Spent the better part of three days searching for him, and now I’m wondering if he was here all along. Three long days . . .

Three days earlier ………

Chris had been searching for the tracker for nearly half an hour, and he was starting to get concerned. JD had tipped off the gunslinger that a group of bounty hunters was in town, and he needed to get the message to the man they hunted. With Peso still in the livery, it was a sure bet Vin was still in town, but he didn’t appear to be at any of his usual haunts. Larabee had hit the saloon, the jail, the wagon, the church, and Mary’s office, but not a soul had seen the younger man.

With an exasperated sigh, he pulled off his hat and wiped a hand across his brow.

"You lookin’ fer someone, Cowboy?" a soft voice drifted on the breeze from up above.

Chris turned his face into the sun and squinted at the man perched on the roof above him.

Vin wore that shit-eating grin that drove Chris and the local women crazy – albeit for entirely different reasons.

With a shake of his head, Chris put a finger to his lips in warning and moved to the back of the building, where he climbed to the roof.

Vin had moved away from the edge, and quietly met up with the man in black. "There a problem?" he asked.

"Could be – if you don’t get yourself off this roof and somewhere safe."

"Bounty hunters?"

With a nod, Chris responded, "JD says there are five of them this time. Got any ideas who they might be?"

Vin shook his head, "Kinda unusual t’ run in a pack like that – too many ways t’ split the pot."

The blond agreed, "I was thinking that, too. We’ll take care of them; you just stay out of the way."

"You sure they’re after me?" Vin asked, not liking the idea of hiding away when trouble loomed.

"Looks that way, Vin." Chris winced at the look of despair on his friend’s face. He knew exactly what Vin was thinking, for they’d had this discussion many times. He tried to reassure the man, "Just go on and lay low. No one will get hurt."

Vin cringed at those words. Someone would get hurt. It was just a matter of time, and how would he feel then? It was hard enough looking over his shoulder worrying about his own back, without carrying the weight of six other men.

He should have taken care of this. But he didn’t. He hadn’t, and now what? With a slow shake of his head, he lowered his eyes and started to follow Chris to the ladder.

The shots rang out in sudden, rapid succession. Vin flung himself flat to the roof and inched his way back towards the edge. Chris would undoubtedly get after him for the move, but there was no way he was running off now. He took a quick glance behind him and saw that Larabee had made it down and to a position of cover, before picking up his weapon and taking aim.

It was then that he heard the terrible scream and choking sobs from the street nearby. The shots were coming fast and furious now from all directions and he knew that the others had joined in the fray. But someone had gotten caught in the crossfire – the sound of fear and grief unmistakable even in the thundering roar of gunfire.

He had to know, and so he paused just long enough to turn his eyes downward and to the right. JD had a young girl in his arms and was carrying her into Mary’s office for shelter. Nettie was right behind him.

Nettie was right behind him.

Oh God.

They’d hit Casey.

He knew it from just the briefest glance at Nettie’s face. He fought the urge to just stand up and beg the men to take him. Anything to stop this here and now, before someone else got hurt. As the bullets continued to rain down around him and his friends, he prayed fervently for their safety.

But it wasn’t to be.

The nightmare played on as he fired from high above, flat on his belly, his eyes taking in every movement in the streets below. He didn’t miss Ezra’s cry of pain as the gambler fell bleeding into the street. Next it was Nathan – the large, dark-skinned man not even having a second to flinch as the bullet slammed into his broad chest with stunning accuracy.

It couldn’t be real. Please, God – don’t let this be real, he cried wordlessly into the maelstrom.

In a haze of anguish, he pulled himself up and fired with rage into the dusty streets below. He never heard the man come up behind him; never even sensed his presence until he felt the blow to his head.

It had all gone bad so fast. Chris had managed to work his way closer to the saloon; had managed to pull the bloody bodies of his two friends from the streets and into the tavern. Ezra moaned a soft complaint, but Nathan never moved as the crimson stain spread slowly across his chest.

There was no time to tend to either man, though, as the battle continued on outside. The firing from the roof became intense, desperate, and Chris knew that Vin had seen the bloody results of this latest attempt to cash in on his name.

Vin quickly took out two of the shooters as he stood and finally got a bead on their positions, while Buck and Josiah continued to exchange fire with two more. Chris searched determinedly for the fifth man, swallowing the fear that gripped him when he saw the man streak across the roof towards the unsuspecting tracker.

A fierce battle commenced on the roof, and Chris tried to move back from where he’d come to assist his friend. But bullets still flew furiously from one side of the street to the other, and he could only watch as Vin and his unknown assailant exchanged blows from high above.

And then, as quickly as it started, it was over. The gunfire abruptly came to an end – the other two bounty hunters slumped lifelessly on the boardwalk. Chris moved into the street and peered up through the dust and smoke to the place he’d last seen the tracker.

The dust stung his eyes, and he rubbed his hand across them to get a better look. In what seemed to be slow motion, he watched as both Vin and the unknown man tumbled off the roof into the street below.

Bedlam existed in the small town as the locals came from hiding and gasped at the blood and bodies that seemed to litter their streets. From the corner of his eye, Chris saw Buck run at JD’s call for help. He heard his own name, "Chris!" – short and panicked from inside the saloon. Josiah needed him, but Vin was down, unmoving in the dirt between the buildings where he’d fallen.

"Chris! I need help in here!" Josiah repeated, yelling now. Chris stood torn, unsure which way to go, until he saw Vin slowly stagger to his feet. A small breath hissed between the blond’s tightly clenched teeth. One small wrong righted – one small favor granted in this mess – at least Vin was alive, he thought.

+ + + + + + +

I’ll never forget seeing him to get to his feet. Even through the haze, I could see the look of unbelief and pure agony on his face. I knew what he was thinking – but there was no time to go to him. It was hours later when I realized he was gone, although I wasn’t surprised.

I reach for the canteen, but it’s almost empty. With a brief look at Vin, I head out to the pump to refill it. The cool water splashes over the rim and onto my hands. I let it run between my fingers, relishing the feel of it.

My hands are dirty.

As dirty as Vin’s.

We both let it go on too long. How many times had he told me he needed to go to Tascosa, and how many times had I talked him out of it? Shooting Eli Joe is the least of my guilt. That decision was inevitable – the alternative unacceptable – I had no choice. But that has not been the case since then.

No, I am guilty, too.

I wonder if I can make him see that . . . if it will matter.

I step back into the cabin and crouch back down to the floor. He is staring straight through me, and I feel unsettled. I hold the canteen out to him, unsure if he can hold it – unsure if he even sees it. The nod is slight, but it heartens me as he reaches out for the water . . . with his left hand, I notice. His hand is shaking, and I just barely resist the urge to reach out and help him. Not yet, he’s not ready yet.

He takes a long drink before handing the vessel back to me, and manages another small nod. He meets my eyes, questions and fears looming huge in the unnaturally blue depths. I need to choose my words carefully.

He sees the hesitation, and it seems to me that he is pulling even deeper into himself. Soon he’ll be completely . . . gone. Just not there at all.

I banish that notion from my head. I know him . . . I know he is stronger than me; smarter than many; more forgiving than most. The past has not defeated him yet, and it won’t now. He’ll learn to forgive himself.

But first, he needs to know.

"They are alive, Vin. They’re fighting." I say it softly, with confidence. I don’t tell him that the wounds were bad – that only Ezra has really made gains in the past three days.

He closes his eyes and turns his head into the wall. He knows what I didn’t say. I will not lie to him. I will not say they are fine . . . all is well . . . nothing’s changed.

Everything’s changed and he knows it.

A small tear runs from the corner of his eye and slides slowly down his cheek. I can’t take my eyes off it; can hardly stop myself from reaching over and wiping it away. I don’t want to see this. I don’t want to feel his pain. God knows there’s been enough the past three days.

I want to leave. I tell myself I should leave. I’m needed in town. There’s nothing I can do here.

Instead, I sit cross-legged on the floor across from him. He came here for a reason. He knew I’d come eventually. He knew I’d find him. He wanted to be found. I know him . . . he could have disappeared off the face of the earth if he’d wanted.

And so I wait, and try to stuff away the memories of the last days to that dark place in my mind.

+ + + + + + +

There was no one to help.

Nettie had dug more bullets out in her day than she cared to remember, but not from her child. Dear Lord, not from her child.

Mary, JD, and Buck had hovered anxiously nearby – every one of them willing to do whatever she asked. But she had the most experience, and not surprisingly, the steadiest hands. So she did what she had to, just as she’d done her entire life.

But dear God, it was so unfair.

Her precious niece had not stirred, and she took that for the bad sign it was – while at the same time thanking the very God she cursed that the girl was not suffering. Only when it was finished and her hands were washed clean of the blood of her own, did she look to those around her.

Mary’s eyes were rimmed with tears as she solemnly pulled the blanket up over Casey; the need to do something, to ease her sense of helplessness, apparent in her actions as well as her expressions.

Buck stood with a hand resting softly on JD’s forearm; his touch light and infinitely gentle, yet strong in the sureness of its presence.

JD’s young eyes were wide with emotion; fear and grief and anger raging a battle too violent to hide. Throughout it all, he’d stayed by the young girl’s side, and Nettie loved him for it. She knew how hard is was for him; knew because it was nearly impossible for herself . . . so much easier to hide your head in the sand – to pretend it all away. That was not her way, though – she had never hidden from the unbearable, and she was grateful that young Dunne was there to face it with her.

Throughout the long day, Buck had drifted in and out of the room, offering little information on the condition of the others. It wasn’t until nearly dusk, that Chris had finally stopped in, his face lined and pale.

That was when Nettie had asked – only then had she wondered what events had led her to be in this room, facing this loss.

"What happened out there, Chris?"

He took in the haggard lines that creased her weathered face. She looked older than he remembered, more vulnerable than he’d ever seen her. He wondered how much more she could take. But he owed her the truth, and Vin wouldn’t want it any other way.

"They were bounty hunters . . . after Vin."

She met him squarely, her shoulders straight and defiant. Suddenly he saw the anger in her features quickly melt away into something else. Nettie seemed to collapse in on herself as she slowly sunk into the nearby chair. To his astonishment, the old woman lowered her face into her hands – and for the first time that day – she wept.

Chris had left then. He’d rode out and circled the small town, hoping to spot a trace of the missing tracker. But with night falling, there was little chance of finding Vin. He took comfort in the fact that he hadn’t found his friend lying by the side of the road. Heaven only knew how badly Tanner had been injured in the fall, considering his opponent was dead from a broken neck. Why the man had chosen to attack Vin on the roof, rather than just shoot him in the back, was a mystery Chris would never know the answer to – but he was grateful just the same.

He’d returned to town exhausted beyond measure, but there was no time for rest, with two of his men badly injured. He and Josiah, with Inez’s help, had extracted the bullets from Ezra and Nathan, and settled them on beds in the rooms above the saloon. There seemed to be little point in moving the injured men to the clinic, and if the truth be told, the thought of tending Nathan there was too hard to consider.

The healer needed himself – the irony of it slapping the remaining men in the face. They felt cautiously optimistic for Ezra, but Nathan lay near death; his shallow breathing and thready pulse distressful evidence of that fact. Throughout the long night, Josiah and Chris kept watch, trying not to think of how many times Jackson had done the same for them.

It wasn’t until the next morning that the subject of Vin’s whereabouts was broached. Buck approached Chris wearily, worn down about as low as the blond had ever seen his old friend.

"You gonna go after Vin?" he asked the gunslinger.

Chris met the lanky man’s eyes, wondering what he might see there; relieved to see only concern.

"I am," Larabee answered shortly – having just that moment made up his mind.

"Good . . . ‘cause the man’s hurtin’ – in more ways than one."

"What do you know about that, Buck?" He was sure none of the others had seen Vin fall. With all the other injuries to tend to, Chris hadn’t mentioned the possibility that Tanner was hurt, as well.

"Yosemite," Buck answered. "He said he had to help Vin saddle his horse – had to help him mount up, too. Said Vin wouldn’t even look at him. He’s hurtin’, Chris, and probably hidin’ from himself as much as us."

Chris was about to ask why Yosemite hadn’t come to him – why he’d helped the tracker in the first place. But he knew why. Vin was kind to the man, and Yosemite undoubtedly felt sorry for his friend. The thought encouraged him, in a small way. If things got ugly, Vin would have one local on his side.

Buck took Chris’s arm and added seriously, "Vin needs to know – it could have been any of us."

"What do you mean, Buck?"

With a shrug, Wilmington replied, "We all got enemies, ‘cept for maybe JD. Any one of them could have come after us and caused this." With a sad smile, he added, "Bring him home, Chris."

+ + + + + + +

I don’t know why it always surprises me when Buck hits the nail on the head. He’s a smart man – has good instincts and mostly good intentions . . . when he thinks with his head instead of other parts of his anatomy.

He sure was right about this. Vin needs to know that we all have a past that could endanger others.

Trying again to reach him, I say, "Vin, it could have been any one of us."

That gets his attention. He finally turns his head and meets my eyes again, and I see the unspoken question there.

I clear my throat and begin. "Obviously I have enemies – you’ve seen that for yourself. How many times have you all been mixed up in my battles?"

It’s not good enough; I can tell by the way he sighs and shifts a bit on the hard floor, as if to say, "So?"

"Then there’s Buck. Can’t even imagine how many angry boyfriends he’s got gunning for him."

Still no response. Vin’s stubborn – no mistaking that.

"We know Josiah has a past – he spends one hell of a lot of time atoning for something. Wouldn’t surprise me at all if someone came looking for retribution for his past sins."

A spark of interest. He hasn’t thought of this before, not surprisingly. Vin takes a man at face value. He knows Josiah’s a good man, therefore whatever he did in the past is . . . in the past.

"I probably don’t even need to talk about Ezra, do I?"

A slight shake of his head and a ghost of a smile. Thank you, Buck.

"Of course, Nathan has enemies for no other reason than the color of his skin."

He lifts his head and finally speaks, "That ain’t right!" The rough whisper doesn’t hide the anger in his words.

"No," I say gently, "it ain’t. Just like it ain’t right that greedy men are hunting you down for something you didn’t do. Just like it ain’t right that innocent people get hurt when trouble goes down. It ain’t right – and it ain’t your fault."

He takes a ragged breath, like a sob held in, and I find myself leaning closer.

"Oh . . . God, Chris," he moans brokenly as two more tears trail slowly from his eyes.

I wonder what he would do if I just take him in my arms.

Sounds ridiculous . . . Vin’s not some soft woman or crying baby. But I know he needs that right now. I know him . . . I know when a squeeze on his neck, or a hand on his arm is acceptable. I know that neither of those gestures is enough right now.

But I also know that he doesn’t know that.

Still, he came here . . . where he knew I would eventually come . . . to my cabin . . . to me.

+ + + + + + +

The morning following the shootings, Chris felt torn in two once more. Buck’s words had spurred him to go after the tracker, but lives still hung in the balance. Would Nathan or Ezra or Casey be there when he returned?

Josiah had offered much the same sentiment as Buck, assuring the gunfighter that there was little he could for the injured victims – with the exception of the one gone missing. The preacher never once considered that Vin was anything more than that – a victim of circumstance, same as the others – and Chris was grateful.

JD was more than likely a different story, judging by Buck’s advice to avoid the youth for now. Chris couldn’t blame the kid. That kind of gut-wrenching fear and anger needed someone to blame. The blond knew that all too well. He’d lived it for far too long – would be living it still if he hadn’t found a new purpose in this town with these people.

It couldn’t end like this.

But though the wagging tongues lowered to whispers in his presence, Chris knew of the talk in the dirty streets and behind closed doors. The seven had done much to preserve the town, but their dangerous pasts were sure to come back and haunt them all again – especially Vin’s. Many of the townsfolk were wondering if the price was too high to pay. Who would be the next victim?

Chris could only solve one problem at a time, though, and right now he needed to find Vin. He spent that day searching his friend’s favorite hideaways, but when darkness threatened, he returned to Four Corners. Holding his breath, he moved up the stairs to Ezra’s room. The man looked ghostly in the light of the oil lamp, but the subtle rise and fall of his chest allowed the gunman to take a deep breath of his own. Inez looked up at him as he entered and smiled just a little.

"He woke up," she said.

"Good," Chris said, and it sounded hollow even to his own ears.

"He wondered who he . . . I believe the word was - ‘provoked’, this time," she added tenderly.

Chris’s lips turned up just a smidgeon at that, and he nodded before making his way to the room next door.

He opened the door lightly, and was stunned by the sounds he heard inside; soft sobbing, a mumbling of words muffled by tears. Chris stood uncertainly at the entrance, watching as Josiah lowered his head into his hands and his shoulders shook. With a deep breath, the gunman turned to the man in the bed. Nathan was alive, that was apparent by his harsh, labored breathing.

Chris walked slowly across the room and laid a gentle hand across the preacher’s broad shoulders.

The change was nearly instantaneous as the big man pulled himself together and wiped a hand across his eyes. He looked up at Chris then and said quietly, "I feel so damn helpless. Don’t know how to help him. He’s always here for us, and now when it’s his turn – there isn’t a one of us that know what to do."

"Maybe there’s nothing we can do, Josiah. Seems to me you’ve done everything Nathan would have, and even he fails sometimes. Even Nathan loses a life."

Josiah stood and turned in anger to the gunman. "Nathan doesn’t lose a life – it isn’t up to him and you know it. He does the best he can with what God gave him and that’s all any of us can ask."

Chris only nodded and waited for Josiah to reach his own conclusions.

When he did, the silver-haired man shook his head. "Guess I made the argument for you, didn’t I?"

"I always said you were the smart one, Josiah," Chris responded with a smile.

Josiah returned the smile briefly before turning serious once more. "You bring Vin back?"

"Couldn’t find him."

With an intensity that startled the blond, the preacher said sternly, "You’ve got to find him. Find him and bring him home, Chris. A house divided cannot stand. Now more than ever, we need to be whole."

+ + + + + + +

I was regretting telling Josiah how smart he was at about that point. I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. There were no divided houses that I could see – just a slew of broken, bloody men and one poor innocent child caught in the crossfire.

I’m thinking maybe I see it now, though.

"Come home, Vin," I say gently.

He tries to take a breath and shudders. I can tell by the tight line of his mouth that it hurt him, but he’ll never say it . . . as if acknowledging his own pain somehow diminishes the pain of the others.

I’m surprised when he meets my eyes once more and questions in a low voice, "Can’t I . . . stay here . . . a spell?"

I feel my brows pull together as once more I consider my words, "Of course you can, Vin. You’re always welcome here, but we need you in town. We need you to come home."

I know him . . . know that he’ll tell me his home is the earth and the sky and the stars.

"Home ain’t . . . a place, Chris. Figured . . . you’d know that. Home is . . . a feelin’. It’s being with people . . . y’ feel safe with," he finally finishes breathlessly.

I’m speechless. That’s rare for me. Really, it is. I may be a man of few words, but it’s not because I don’t know what to say. It’s because most things aren’t worth saying. But this time . . . I don’t know what to say.

"I can’t . . . ever go back. Them folks won’t ever . . . feel safe with me, again. I won’t feel safe for ‘em." He looks at me and I see the tears fill his eyes once more. "I can’t go back," he nearly whispers.

I know what to say now. "You feel safe here, Vin? With me?"

He raises a brow, but nods.

"Then I reckon you’re home."

It’s finally time. He closes his eyes and lowers his head and I’m there. I move over to sit beside him, on his left side since I know he’s favoring the right, and rest my hand on his neck. It takes next to nothing to pull him a little closer – he doesn’t resist.

His head slowly drifts to my shoulder – whether from exhaustion or grief, I don’t know and I don’t care. I take my other arm and wrap it around him, mindful of whatever injuries he carrying, and sigh in relief.

He’s letting me hold him.

But it’s only the beginning. We’ve got some work to do to make our house strong again, and it looks to be a long time in coming.

+ + + + + + +

Chris approached the livery early that third morning, intending to leave town before people started stirring. Passing by Mary’s place, he looked longingly at the door. He knew Casey was still holding on; that was all he knew. If the girl died, he’d never get Vin back – might lose JD, too . . . might lose it all.

Nettie stepped out, having peered through the window and spotted the gunman pausing on the boardwalk.

"You going after ‘im?" she asked, with that way she had of cutting to the chase.

Chris nodded and waited for her reaction.

"Bring ‘im home," was all she said, her voice trembling so slightly that only those who really knew her would hear it.

She turned then and went back inside, leaving the gunman to ponder on the wise, old woman who never ceased to amaze him. She’d stolen Vin’s heart, he knew that – and apparently the tracker had stolen hers as well.

Chris left town feeling a little lighter - now that Nettie had given him the best ammunition yet for getting Vin back – if he ever found him.

+ + + + + + +

I’m holding an ace up my sleeve. I know that if I tell Vin that Nettie needs him, he’ll come. But I’m not sure he can handle that pressure right now. No, I’m positive he can’t.

We’ve been sitting here for a while now, and I’m feeling it in my bones. I wonder how Vin managed to sit this way all this time. I wonder how banged up he really is, and I decide it might be time to push the issue.

I know him . . . he’ll say he’s fine; don’t worry after him; he’s taken care of himself all of his life and he’s doesn’t need anyone fussing over him.

"Vin? You reckon we could move you some place a mite more comfortable? Like that bed over there?"

He raises his head and peers uncertainly at the small cot against the far wall of my cabin.

"No," he answers simply.

I sigh. "Vin, I know you’re hurt. You need to get up off this hard floor."


I sigh again. "Yes, you can."

I know what he’s thinking . . . he doesn’t want to take my bed, doesn’t want to put me out, doesn’t want to cause any trouble.

"Can’t . . . move."


"I’ll help you," I say, although I’m concerned that it may not be a good idea. I wonder if Nathan would tell me to just lay him out right there and check him over. Could I make things worse by moving him? Then again, the man rode his horse all this way and managed to get to this position – couldn’t hardly make things worse by moving him ten feet, could I?

People think I always know what to do. They think I’m always in control, always sure. It’s an illusion. Right now I’d give my right arm to have Nathan well and good and here to handle this for me. God, I hope he’s gonna be all right.

I decide to take stock before we set out. "Leg?" I question.

"Hip," he answers.

"Broke?" Oh Lord, I hope not.

"Hope not," Vin says, with a not-too-sure look that does nothing to ease my mind.



"Broke?" I’m sure of it.

"Think so."

"Ribs?" Don’t even bother.

He smirks at me.

"Damn, Tanner. I reckon we should be grateful that that hard head of yours is still in one piece."

"Ain’t all that sure about that, either."

I sigh a third time, and he looks at me. I know him . . . he’s thinking he’s not worth all this bother; he’s thinking he doesn’t deserve the help; he’s thinking maybe he made a mistake coming here.

The only mistake was mine - letting him see my frustration. He just doesn’t know what it’s been like these last three days . . . worrying over Casey and Ezra and Nathan – worrying over him.

I peer at him sideways, trying to gauge what he’s thinking. His shoulders are slumped and his head is hanging and I’m thinking how stupid I am. Of course he knows what it’s been like the last three days. He’s been eating himself alive worrying over Casey and Ezra and Nathan.

"Come on, Vin," I say as I try to gently lift him up with his good arm.

He stifles a groan, biting his lip so hard I’m afraid he’ll get it to bleeding. We sure don’t need more blood shed, and so I tell him, "It’s okay, Pard. You can holler if you need to."

His face is white as he finally pulls himself up on one leg. But he doesn’t make a sound . . . not a whimper or a groan as we slowly make our way over to the bed. He’s dragging the right leg and keeping his right arm up tight against his chest. I can see the pain in the taut muscles of his face; can feel him latch onto my waist tightly with his left arm.

But he never makes a sound, even as I help him lower himself onto the mattress at last.

Only when I reach down to swing his legs up onto the bed does he cry out – although it’s a soft, muted sound – not really a cry at all. He’s holding it in . . . just like I would do. It’s tough to be a man sometimes.

His breathing is coming in short, harsh pants, and it scares me. People think I don’t get scared. They think I can handle whatever comes; think there isn’t a man or beast that can cause me to break a sweat. It’s an illusion. Lots of things scare me; death just isn’t one of them.

At least, not my death.

Casey’s death scares me; Nathan’s death scares me; Ezra – wily little con man that he is – Ezra’s death scares me.

Vin just plain scares me for a multitude of reasons.

+ + + + + + +

Chris never did figure out where Vin had gone on that third day. He headed out towards his land for no specific reason. As much as the others liked to tease him and Vin about reading each other’s minds, he really had no idea where the tracker was. And so, when he topped the hill and saw Peso tied out in front of the little shack, he stopped in shock at the sight.

It never occurred to him that Vin would come there.

He approached the run-down structure carefully – not sure what frame of mind his friend might be in. Even hurt, Vin was a formidable opponent and not to be taken lightly. He needn’t have worried, though; as he saw the minute he hit the door.

Vin was sitting on the floor, his back against the wall just inside the door. It was as if he’d managed to drag himself through the entrance, but just couldn’t go a foot further.

He reminded Chris of a scared, wounded animal, and the gunfighter knew he’d have to play this very carefully or he’d lose his friend – one way or another.

+ + + + + + +

I couldn’t believe it when I found him here today. That so-called connection we supposedly have had failed us completely.

He’s asleep now . . . finally. It was rough, or maybe I should say I was rough . . . never claimed to have Nathan’s gentle touch. I managed to splint his arm and wrap his ribs, but I couldn’t quite figure what to do with the rest of him. I did scare up some whiskey for him. He managed about two swallows before he was out.

He needs Nathan. I never gave it much thought before, but it’s pretty clear now that Nathan is the least expendable of all of us. I hope I get the chance to tell him. I may not word it quite like that, of course.

Vin’s moaning in his sleep. He would hate that, if he knew. I lean down to pull up the covers and brush his hair from his face.

What the hell is wrong with me? First I’m wanting to hold him, and now I’m practically caressing the man.

I’m just so damn worried is all. Fooling myself, too, thinking any of the boys are ‘expendable’. Fact is, I couldn’t imagine life without any of them, now . . . even though they annoy the hell out of me sometimes.

He opens his eyes just a slit and I see him try to swallow. I reach for the canteen and hold his head up enough for him to get a good drink. He hardly manages a nod before he’s out again.

And there I go again, pushing his hair off his neck and his face. I can’t seem to help myself.

I’m happy he’s here, and I meant what I said about him being welcome to stay. But it’s not the answer. All that stuff Josiah said about the seven of us needing to be ‘whole’ is true. As soon as Vin is able, I’ve got to find a way to get him home.


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